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The Spiritual Danger of Distraction — An Excerpt from "The Next Story" by Tim Challies
Enter The Next Story, Tim Challies's thoughtful, biblical engagement with important questions about faith and life in the digital revolution, freshly updated for the 2015 digital world. It’s a balanced book that champions the good of technology, while prophetically voicing its dangers.
Challies confronts one of those dangers in today’s excerpt: Distraction
“It is increasingly difficult to remain undistracted,” Challies writes, “when every new technology seems to evolve toward greater distraction.” (115)
"With the ever-present distractions in our lives, we are quickly becoming a people of shallow thoughts, and shallow thoughts will lead to shallow living." (117)
Read and share today’s excerpt, then engage Challie’s book yourself to continue thinking and living deeply in our digital world.
Just before writing this chapter, in the summer of 2010, I went away on a week’s vacation. This was the first time I had chosen to escape not just my home but also my media — to escape both my geographical and digital worlds. I drove with my family some 650 miles south to a state park in the middle of Virginia and stayed there for a week with no e-mail, no cell phone signal, no Facebook or Twitter or television or computer games.
And there were no beeps.
Immediately, I noticed that the loss of my digital technologies had slowed the pace of my life. No longer were these devices beckoning to me, demanding that I respond to them, calling me to answer e-mails and respond to messages. For a full week, I left behind the harried world of modern digital life. It actually took me several days to respond to this new pace of life and grow comfortable moving at this slower pace. Unfortunately, upon my return it took only a few hours to turn things on once again and increase the speed.
While staying at the cabin in the woods of Virginia, I was able to clearly see the level of distraction in my life, the distraction of digital living. It is increasingly difficult to remain undistracted when every new technology seems to evolve toward greater distraction. In an essay on the related topics of distraction and procrastination, Paul Graham writes, “Distraction is not a static obstacle that you avoid like you might avoid a rock in the road. Distraction seeks you out.” Like the beeps that emanate from our digital devices, the technology of our time is bent on seeking us out, finding us wherever we are, and drawing us somewhere else.
On the one hand, we have become somewhat dependent on our devices. After all, they bring us great benefits. We are not ready to give them up. But on the other hand, we must honestly face the truth that these devices are prone to draw us away from the important things in life — and the people who are closest to us. The cell phone, a device meant to enhance my communication with others, can increase my ability to communicate with those who are far from me, often at the cost of communication with my own wife and children — those closest to me.
Eventually the problem of distraction becomes more than something that just happens to us; it defines our identity. We become distracted people. We begin to flit from one thing to the next, whether or not there is a beep to summon us. We become so shaped by our devices that we lose our ability to focus. We are transformed from people who respond to the beep to people of the beep.
The Danger of Distraction
If we are a distracted people, a distracted society, it stands to reason that we would also be a distracted church, a church with a diminished ability to think deeply, to cultivate concentration, to emphasize slow, deliberate, thoughtful meditation. What Paul said of the unbelieving Jews of his day could likely be said of many of us today: “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Christians may be excited about God, but because they have become a product of our digital world, they have a diminished ability to think deeply about him, to truly know him as he is. More and more of us are finding that we just can’t stop long enough to read. We can’t sustain our attention long enough to study. We can’t find the time to meet with our Father. Where prayer used to be the first activity of the day, we now begin our daily routine by checking e-mail. Where the Bible used to be a special book we read and studied, now it’s an e-book that competes with our voice mail, text messages, e-mails, and the ever-present lure of the Internet.
When I speak on the topic of technology to Christian audiences, this is the issue, more than any other, that they have questions about. “Why am I so distracted? Why is life suddenly moving so quickly? Why can’t I think anymore?” They have begun to experience the fruit of constant distraction, but they don’t have a theoretical or theological structure in place to make sense of how it is happening or how to respond. Their minds are scattered, and they’re desperate for help.
Here is one of the great dangers we face as Christians: With the ever-present distractions in our lives, we are quickly becoming a people of shallow thoughts, and shallow thoughts will lead to shallow living. There is a simple and inevitable progression at work here:
Distraction —➤ Shallow Thinking —➤ Shallow Living
All of this distraction is reshaping us in two dangerous ways. First, we are tempted to forsake quality for quantity, believing the lie that virtue comes through speed, productivity, and efficiency. We think that more must be better, and so we drive ourselves to do more, accomplish more, be more. And second, as this happens, we lose our ability to engage in deeper ways of thinking — concentrated, focused thought that requires time and cannot be rushed. Instead of focusing our efforts in a few directions, we give scant attention to many things, skimming instead of studying. We live rushed lives and forget how to move slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully through life.
The challenge facing us is clear. We need to relearn how to think, and we need to discipline ourselves to think deeply, conquering the distractions in our lives so that we can live deeply. We must rediscover how to be truly thoughtful Christians, as we seek to live with virtue in the aftermath of the digital explosion.
By Tim Challies
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